Wagner ring 57964

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876)
Chorus & Orchestra of the Sofia National Opera Company/Pavel Baleff, Erich Wächter
rec. live, 2010-13, Sofia Opera & Ballet
Dynamic 57964 Blu-ray [4 discs: 946]

The performances in this new release were staged over four years to celebrate the composer’s 200th birth anniversary in 2013. I presume Dynamic delayed this so as not to clash with other Ring cycles issued ten years ago. They shouldn’t have worried, though; there are no big names or celebrity conductors here and the Sofia Opera and Ballet have no reputation beyond the Balkans. If you want that, look away now; however, if you want a top-class production with great singing and innovative staging, you should not hesitate to add this to your collection.

Eastern European opera companies are not generally recognised for their Wagner productions and Sofia’s sole competitor is the Mariinsky staging, which has not been welcomed all around. The St Petersburg cycle on CD remains incomplete, with Siegfried and Götterdämmerung awaiting release. The Sofia company had several highly successful releases on Sony Classics of Russian operas in the 1980s, from Glinka to Tchaikovsky, with celebrated European singers and the outstanding conductor Emil Tchakarov, but, sadly, he died shortly afterwards, and less has been heard of this company since.

Bulgaria has produced several singers of world stature, the most celebrated being Ljuba Welitsch, Boris Christoff, Ghena Dimitrova, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Nikola Ghiuselev, and Krassimira Stoyanova, all of whom established great careers in the West. Although a decade has passed since these recordings were made, I will be surprised if several of this cycle’s singers do not enjoy international careers.

This cycle uses the reduced version by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing for small theatres, employing 93 musicians. The Sofia theatre’s stage and pit seem approximate to the Lyceum in Edinburgh, or Glasgow’s Kings’ Theatre. The direction by Plamen Kartaloff is outstanding, and the main reason for the success of this fascinating Ring cycle. An important factor here is the lighting projections by Kartaloff and Rumen Kovachev allowing every change of colour to match the drama and music. Another boldly adventurous and innovative aspect of this production are the brightly colourful costumes by Nikolay Panayatov who makes his debut in opera; hopefully it is not his last work in the genre as he offers a brilliance and avant-garde influence on Kartaloff’s Konzept. The work of Richard Trimborn over several years in training the singers is another triumph for the Sofia Ring.

This cycle’s ageless and ultramodern Konzept engages a space-age dimension for the sets and costumes. At the centre is a great ring which rises and descends throughout the scenes, behind which are rockets which later turn around and allow the Nibelungen to enter and exit. In the background, the characters move across the stage on a walkway like spectres during the narrations. The transformations between scenes create a visual spectacular that must have been astonishing for the audience.

The opening scene in Das Rheingold shows the Rhinemaidens dancing and cavorting on trampolines inside the great ring (I cannot remember hearing singers singing while on a trampoline). Wotan is attired like an astronaut while Fricka is in glittering evening attire – the most amazing costumes are for Fasolt and Fafner, who wear great outsize figures above their own bodies – in closeup, they look slightly absurd, but in the theatre they seem appropriate.

Nikolay Petrov’s Wotan is in strong, vibrant voice and he is a fine actor. Rumyana Petrova as Fricka is the finest singing actress of the whole cycle, with every facial movement and gesture revealing her emotions. The Alberich of Biser Georgiev is a befittingly fine, dark baritone, and Daniel Ostretsov’s Loge is brilliant in voice and acting with a suitably apt costume. I am also impressed by the Freia of Veselina Vasilieva with her beautiful lyric soprano. The Personenregie is masterfully handled by Kartaloff, and his acuity works well with the great ring, abetted by an almond-like mandorla which acts as the crucible of life and death, while innovative projections give a distinct colourful feature to the tetralogy. 

Die Walküre opens with a portion of the ring on stage and in the background is a passageway where we see the Walsungs and Hundings in combat during the Prelude; this continues as the characters sing, with the ghostly figures on the moving walkway. Again, I am impressed by the lighting and colours projected on stage in harmony with the musical drama, ranging from bright flames of yellow to deep flowing crimson reds. Martin Iliev’s Siegmund is a major success, splendidly sung and characterised. The bizarre and exotic costume for the Hunding of Angel Hristov seems to come from ancient Korean tradition but his singing and acting are outstanding, and again the Fricka of Petrova is magnificent, her facial expressions worthy of a major acting honour. Once more, the Wotan of Petrov impresses in characterisation and voice. The final scene of the Valkyries is awesome, with each Valkyrie mounted on a rocket on a bogie moved by a stagehand. Throughout the action on stage is remarkable – and would surely have seemed even more so to the audience. The Brünnhilde is well performed by Mariana Tzvetkova (the first of three singers for this role in this cycle), who appears in different roles throughout the tetralogy. 

Siegfried is normally considered to be the least colourful of the cycle, but Kartaloff’s direction makes it the most outstanding and impressive opera of the tetralogy, with its astounding sets, costumes and visually spectacular scenes. The opening scene is dominated by the vertical ring and is lit by dark blue colours making it appear magical and dramatic. The Mime of Krasimir Dinev is outstanding, and matched by the Siegfried of Iliev, who carries on from his outstanding Siegmund in Die Walküre. The Wanderer is Martin Tsonev – another great actor-singer. An adornment is the daringly suspended Lyubov Melodieva as the Forest Bird singing from the heights of the stage. Other features are the colourful transitions created in harmony with Wagner’s conception, particularly as the mandorla transforms into a spaceship for Siegfried and Sieglinde. 

The Prologue in Götterdämmerung is remarkable as we see the three Norns emerging from a space capsule – a scene stunning in its spectacular originality. Their portrayals are mesmerizing. Moving to the first act, we see two great structures with the divided Ring at the centre. The Hagen of Petar Buchkov is the ultimate personification of evil – his character is at the centre of every scene, from the opening imagery from medieval Germany, as Gunther above watches the stars through his telescopes; below, his sister Gutrune is splendidly portrayed by Tsvetana. Especially notable is the scene of the Rhinemaidens cavorting with Siegfried in superb interplay among trampolines and the Ring. The Siegfried of Kostadin Andreev impresses with his fine tenor and acting – and in this final opera of the saga, Yordanka Derilova as Brünnhilde displays extraordinary stamina and vocal strength, and acting make her the star of the show. The closing scene presents a spectacular and surprising ending to this cosmically inspired production.

The orchestra is excellent throughout and the music is adorned by virtuosic woodwind, especially the bass clarinet, flute and bassoon solos – so characterful in Wagner’s orchestration. The sound is generally very good with emphasis in the aural picture given to the voices rather than the orchestra. The Bulgarian maestro Pavel Beleff is firmly in control in the first three operas, and in Götterdämmerung, the German Erich Wächter takes over masterfully, bringing out all the grandeur of this finale. The Sofia Ring is a marvellous production with little or no weaknesses bringing new ideas to Wagner’s tetralogy, and exceeding many other recent European productions. The four operas are filmed by a minimum of four, and sometimes six, cameras, and we see the audience reception at the end of each opera. The cardboard box holds 4 Blu-ray discs in a box with an enclosed 12-page booklet comprising details of the casts, production staff, and entry points for the scenes. An English and Italian synopsis is available online from the Dynamic website. I have no qualms in commending the Sofia Ring as a very worthy choice for its beauty and outstanding musical performances.

Gregor Tassie

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Das Rheingold
Wotan – Nikolay Petrov (bass-baritone)
Donner – Krastan Krastanov (baritone)
Froh – Miroslav Andreev (tenor)
Loge – Daniel Ostretsov (tenor)
Alberich – Biser Georgiev (baritone)
Mime – Krasimir Dinev (tenor)
Fasolt – Stefan Vladimirov (bass)
Fafner – Petar Buchkov (bass)
Fricka – Rumyana Petrova (soprano)
Freia – Veselina Vasileva (soprano)
Erda – Blagovesta Mekki-Tsvetkova (mezzo soprano)
Woglinde – Irina Zhekova (soprano)
Wellgunde – Dorotea Doroteeva (mezzo-soprano)
Flosshilde – Tsveta Sarambelieva (mezzo-soprano)
rec. 25 May 2010

Die Walküre
Siegmund – Martin Iliev (tenor)
Hunding – Angel Hristov (bass)
Wotan – Nikolay Petrov (bass-baritone)
Sieglinde – Tsvetana Bandalovska (soprano)
Fricka – Rumyana Petrova (soprano)
Helmwige – Milena Gyurova (soprano)
Brünnhilde – Mariana Tzvetkova (soprano)
Ortlinde – Orina Zhekova (soprano)
Gerhilde – Lyubov Melodieva (soprano)
Waltraute – Dimitrinka Raycheva (mezzo soprano)
Siegrune – Mariela Aleksandrova (mezzo-soprano)
Rossweisse – Tsveta Sarambelieva (mezzo-soprano)
Gringerde – Margarita Damyanova (mezzo-soprano)
Schwertleite – Blagovesta Mekki-Tzvetkova (contralto)
rec. 14 April 2011

Siegfried – Martin Iliev (tenor)
Mime – Krasimir Dinev (tenor)
Alberich – Biser Georgiev (baritone)
Wanderer – Martin Tsonev (bass-baritone)
Fafner – Petar Buchkov (bass)
Erda – Rumyana Petrova (soprano)
Brünnhilde – Bayasgalan Dashnyam (soprano)
Forest Bird – Lyubov Melodieva (soprano)
rec. 30 May 2012

Siegfried – Kostadin Andreev (tenor)
Gunther – Atanas Mladenov (tenor)
Alberich – Biser Georgiev (baritone)
Hagen – Petar Buchkov (bass)
Brünnhilde – Yordanka Derilova (soprano)
Gutrune – Tsvetana Bandalovska (soprano)
First Norn – Petya Tsoneva (mezzo-soprano)
Second Norn – Dimitrinka Raycheva (mezzo-soprano)
Third Norn – Flora Tarpomanova (soprano)
Waltraute – Tsveta Sarambelieva (soprano)
Woglinde – Milena Gyurova (soprano)
Wellgunde – Silvia Teneva (mezzo-soprano)
Flosshilde – Dimitrinka Raycheva (soprano)
Chorus of Sofia Opera and Ballet/Concertmaster – Violeta Dimitrova
rec. 29 June 2013

Director – Plamen Kartaloff
Assistant Director – Juliya Krasteva
Set and Costume Designer – Nikolay Panayatov
Lighting Designer – Andrej Hajdinjak
Sound Engineer – Yordan Tomov
Video Editor – Angel Christov
Coaches: Milen Stanev, Yolanta Smolyanova
Video Directors – Rumen Kovachev, Plamen Kartaloff

Technical information
Picture format: 108i60. Sound format: PCM Stereo 2.0/Dolby digital 5.1. Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Audio language: German. Subtitles: Italian, English, French, German, Japanese, Korean.